Latvia - Politics
The resident population of Latvia includes a number of ethnic and/or linguistic minorities. Ethnic Latvians make up some 59 percent. Among the principal national minorities, ethnic Russians comprise 27 per cent of residents, Belarusians 3.6 per cent, Ukrainians 2.5 per cent, Poles 2.3 per cent, and Lithuanians 1.3 per cent. Several other national minority groups make up less than one per cent of the population each. According to the 2000 census, Latvian was the first language of 58 percent of residents, and Russian was the first language of 40 percent of residents. Russian speakers are especially concentrated in the east of the country, Riga and some other larger towns.
While Latvia’s politics is divided broadly along linguistic lines, some election contestants had candidates from both Russian and Latvian linguistic communities on their lists, and tried to appeal to speakers of both languages. The provisions of the Official Language Law were interpreted as prohibiting printed voter education and information in any language other than Latvian, thus disadvantaging voters with a low proficiency in the State language. Nevertheless, the CEC’s website provided some information in Russian. In some cases, election officials were flexible about accepting complaints in Russian.
After the restoration of Latvia’s independence in 1991, citizenship was granted automatically to holders of Latvian citizenship prior to 1940 and their descendants. As the law grants the right to vote and to stand to citizens, an estimated 321,000 non-citizen long-term residents of voting age did not have the right to participate in the elections. The status of non-citizenship was intended to be temporary, so that a person might obtain the citizenship of Latvia or some other state.
Citizenship may be obtained by children whose parents are non-citizens, if the parents initiate an application process, and by adults through a naturalization process. Naturalization rates peaked in the years immediately before and after Latvia’s accession to the European Union in 2004, but have declined since 2006. Non-citizens have the right to join political parties so long as they do not make up half or more of members, and they may make financial contributions to political parties.
While citizenship is recognized as an admissible restriction to suffrage, in particular in elections for national office, the fact that some 17 per cent of voting age long-term residents cannot participate even in local and European Parliament elections remains a challenge.
In the June 5-6, 1993 elections, in which more than 90% of the electorate participated, eight of Latvia's 23 registered political parties passed the 5% threshold to enter parliament. The centrist party Latvia's Way received a 33% plurality of votes and joined the Farmer's Union to head a center-right-wing coalition government.
The September 30-October 1, 1995 elections resulted in a deeply fragmented parliament with nine parties represented and the largest party commanding only 18 of 100 seats. Attempts to form right-of-center and leftist governments failed; seven weeks after the election, a broad but fractious coalition government of six of the nine parties was voted into office under Prime Minister Andris Skele, a popular, nonpartisan businessman.
In the 1998 elections, the Latvian party structure began to consolidate, with only six parties obtaining seats in the Saeima. Andris Skele's newly formed People's Party garnered a plurality with 24 seats. Though the election represented a victory for the center-right, personality conflicts and scandals within the two largest right-of-center parties--Latvia's Way and the People's Party--prevented stable coalitions from forming. Two shaky governments quickly collapsed in less than a year. In May 2000, a compromise candidate was found in the Latvia's Way mayor of Riga, Andris Berzins. His four-party coalition lasted until parliamentary elections in October 2002. Those elections left Latvia's Way, for the first time since 1993, with no seats in parliament. The New Era Party, which ran on an anti-corruption platform, gained the most seats and formed a four-party coalition government until the abrupt resignation of the Prime Minister in February 2004 over issues relating to personalities and management of the ruling coalition.
In 1999, the Saeima elected Vaira Vike-Freiberga, a compromise candidate with no party affiliation, to the presidency. Though born in Riga in 1937, she settled in Canada during the years of the Soviet occupation, becoming a well-respected academic on the subject of Latvian culture and psychology. Following her election, she became one of the most popular political figures in Latvia. She was overwhelmingly re-elected by parliament for another four-year term in June 2003. She was also credited with bringing Latvia to the world's stage and serving as an important check on the ruling coalitions.
With the tacit support of leftist parties, a minority government led by Greens and Farmers Union leader Indulis Emsis took office on March 9, 2004. The new government focused on smoothing Latvia's entry into NATO and the European Union, which took place in the first half of 2004. The government collapsed on October 28, 2004 after parliament voted against the 2005 budget. A new coalition government, led by Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis, took office on December 2, 2004.
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